Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, April 15, 2016

Up to Jutland: The Early Sea War

British Minelayers in the North Sea

Early on, while the U-boat war was still ramping up and up to the battle of Jutland, the surface fleets played their most prominent roles in the war. The navies of the combatants were roaming the world prewar, and this gave them an immediate capability to project  force to distant shores and to harass opposing forces and colonies overseas. Thus, as war broke out in August 1914 on the Continent, other naval actions broke out in all the world's oceans far from Europe. Consequently, a European war, quickly became a world war.  

The Early Naval War — in two major ways — was about communications:

A.  In the Narrow Sense: Signals 

Wireless communication and undersea cable were used to communicate with ships at sea and forces deployed overseas during the period. By the outbreak of war, both sides had worldwide networks for strategic communication. Yours needed to be protected, theirs needed to be destroyed. Bombarding radio stations and cutting of cables was ongoing. Also, listening to enemy signals became highly refined.

In an interesting case, the only dreadnought vs. dreadnought battle of 1915,  Dogger Bank, fought on 24 January, was initiated to clear the North Sea of spying fishing trawlers that were listening into the radio communications of the High Seas Fleet. The Germans lost an armored cruiser SMS Blücher, but scored a lot of hits on the British battle cruisers that arrived on the scene. The Germans learned lessons about the vulnerability of magazines to the flash from exploding shells and adapted designs accordingly. The British did not and would lose five ships in 1916 at Jutland to this effect.

B.  More broadly — Creating and Protecting Lines of Communication

The roads which lead from the position of an army to those points in its rear where its depôts of supply and means of recruiting and refitting its forces are principally united, and which it also in all ordinary cases chooses for its retreat, have a double signification; in the first place, they are its lines of communication for the constant nourishment of the combatant force, and next they are roads of retreat.
Von Clausewitz

Two ways to threaten or cut lines of sea communications are raiders and blockades. The most import way of securing a line of communications at sea is to lay mines.  

Damage at a British Station in Burma from Bombardment by German Raider SMS Emden

Four Seaborne Lines of Communication Were of Particular Importance in the First Half of the War:

1.  The English Channel & North Sea: both the main British Access to the Continent and source of danger.

British maintained long-range blockade in the North Sea
HMS Audacious sunk by mine off Scotland, October 1914, first battleship sunk in the war 
Submarine net across Dover Straits 
Minelaying between Ireland and Scotland and around important ports and bases

2.  The Baltic: the German Navy attempts to end-run the Eastern Font
Russian minelaying was especially effective
Germans mounted a major attack on the Gulf of Riga with eight battleships and battle cruisers  in August 1915
British submarines had their greatest successes of the war this year in the Baltic

3.  The Adriatic: submarine access to the Mediterranean
Raiding by both sides after Italy enters the war.
British squadron supplements the Italian Navy
Germans and Austrians both operated submarines and the Mediterranean was a great shooting gallery for the U-boats.
Otranto Barrage: effort to block exit to the Mediterranean with trawlers and nets, including U.S. Navy trawlers  (proved ineffective)

Officers of U-35 That Successfully Prowled the Mediterranean

4.  Gibraltar-Suez, especially for Gallipoli Campaign of 1915
Failure of the battleships on 18 March led to the land campaign
Massive ongoing support for the land campaign
Royal Navy played critical role in highly successful evacuation 
Major hunting ground for Central Powers' U-boats

For More Information see:

The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas, 1914–1919
by Marcus Faulkner and Andrew Lambert

Website: The War at Sea from WWI Document Archive

1 comment:

  1. Very useful outline. Thanks - personally, I don't know much about the sea war.